The making of Life Cycle

If you have an idea for a film but never have the time to make it, Neil Carstairs can recommend a two year posting to a remote part of Scotland to get you started.

Neil Carstais (left)

I finished all the drawings for my previous film The Circle and the Square in the first three months of a two year posting to the far North West of Scotland. I was there to help supervise the building of a bridge. The site was so remote there was nothing much for me to do, except animation, on wet weekends or during the long winter evenings, when dusk fell as early as 3 p.m.

Therefore I started doing drawings for another cartoon almost immediately without planning the complete film. I produced an opening sequence of a track into a hollow, geometrical island in full perspective and started animating a family of tetrahedra on this background. Animating a tetrahedron in perspective is very time consuming, and after several months, I looked at what I had done and realised that, with a few cardboard models, I could have achieved the same effect in an afternoon. Since my main interest is in drawing rather than model animation I decided to abandon the tetrahedra. The island sequence was put away for future use.

I designed a new hero, a descendant of the main character in my first film Elixir. His body could take any form and he could blink, but his head and eye remained a constant shape. He had a crest like a coiled spring which followed through when his head jerked. The audience will not usually notice this follow through, but they would notice if the crest was rigid. His face cannot change expression at all, yet several people have said how well the character’s thoughts came across in the film!

At this stage the storyboard went something like this:

1. The creature is born.
2. Somehow it is motivated to travel.
3. It scrambles over rocks.
4. It eventually achieves its goal.

While casting around for ideas for the motivation at the start, and for an ending, I got on with line tests for the central section. Initially I worked on 3D backgrounds, with the hero clambering onto rocks to see over the horizon to his goal, but I decided early on that more positive obstacles were needed for him to overcome. Therefore I restricted all action to a two dimensional plane, so he was forced to climb over every obstacle he encountered.

Island sequence animated in perspective.

I started by animating a basic walk cycle on the flat, then one clambering up a steep slope. I decided at this stage to make features of the landscape more actively obstructive, so that rocks suddenly reared up and tipped over at critical moments.

All drawing was done on paper and later transferred to cels. While still at the paper stage I painted in the body to see how it moved and changed shape as a mass, not just as an outline. I shot frequent line tests to check that movements worked. Occasionally an action did not look right, in which case I would redraw the relevant section and shoot another test. I had to redraw one movement, when the hero was climbing onto a particularly steep rock, three or four times before I was satisfied that he looked as if it was an effort to clamber up.

I thought of and rejected several possible motivations for the hero. Finally I decided that some similar creatures fly past the hero and he sets off after them. In order to reinforce this idea I got him to give up after an early setback and reverse his direction. One of the flying creatures sees this and loops the loop to encourage him to follow. This took a lot of drawings, but I used them again later when the hero was flying and looped the loop himself. To end the story I brought on a demure heroine for him to woo and mate with. They fly back to the place where he was born and she lays an egg. This gave me the title of the film, Life Cycle.
I would not claim that this is a strong story line, my aim is to entertain the audience even if they forget the story afterwards.

Although I had decided the general storyline of the film by this time I had not worked Out all the details of the middle section. My hero had clambered over a couple of rocks, leapt a chasm, and was now facing a rock dam which used a piston to send a tidal wave to wash him back down when he started to climb it. I expected him to rush up the dam before it could get its piston started, leap the wave of water and splash into the sea beyond. He would then have a couple of underwater adventures, be blown into the air by a waterspout, if I could work out how to animate one, and fly off to meet his mate. However I found that by the time he had leapt the wave he was high above the water and ready to carry on flying. I don’t know who was more surprised! The underwater adventures, which were still only a couple of scribbles, were cut out and I still don’t know whether I can animate a waterspout.

The Circle and the Square had a subdued blue patterned background, so pale that most people saw it as plain white. I wanted to avoid this in Life Cycle but still have a subdued background so as not to draw attention away from the action. I had liked the scenes in Lesley Keen’s Taking a Line for a Walk where the characters were formed from light coloured lines on a dark background, and so decided to use a dark green patterned background with the creatures in light red and yellow.

To paint a cel I had to carry out six separate operations for a three colour character:
1. Trace head, body and crest on the front of the cel in thin black ink.
2. Outline head and crest in yellow paint on the back of the cel with a lining pen.
3. Paint body in red on back of cel.
4. Wash all ink off front of cel, draw on eye and pupil in thick black ink.
5. Paint white of eye on back of cel.
6. Paint yellow head on back of cel.

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